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Second City Television: A History and Episode Guide
August 23, 2013

Review by KC Carlson

Second City Television (frequently known as SCTV) was (and still is) one of my favorite TV series. There was always something really cool about it — it almost always (at least in my area) aired very late in the evenings, on weekends, and after parents went to bed. So it always had that “I’m watching something that I shouldn’t be watching” vibe. But the best thing about it is that it wasn’t “bad” for you. Once you figured out exactly what was going on (and that maybe took an episode or two), you discovered that it was both smart and funny, and that everybody involved with it was amazingly gifted and talented. It was that “secret” thing that you discovered on your own, which got even better when you discovered others who were also in on the secret.

SCTV vs. SNL

SCTV was often compared to its contemporary Saturday Night Live. SNL debuted on NBC on October 11, 1975, while SCTV debuted in Canada (where it was produced) on September 21, 1976. Initially appearing infrequently, SCTV was finally seen weekly beginning in the fall of 1977, about the time the original Canadian episodes began airing in syndication in the US, immediately following SNL in many markets. This caused the two shows to be frequently linked in many viewers’ minds.

There were many similarities between the two shows. The primary cast and writers for both series were originally drawn from the legendary Second City comedy theatre company, known primarily for their improvisational work — and much of the early work of both programs was drawn from characters and situations first developed live on stage. Both shows relied on developing regular, ongoing characters for their respective shows — but what made the primary difference between the shows was the way in which those characters were used.

Saturday Night Live followed a traditional variety show format, with guest hosts and musical guests and a recurring “fake news” segment based on real-world happenings, with some sketches featuring recurring characters. A lot of SNL’s humor also revolved around the real-life (but fictionalized) goings-on backstage at the program. SCTV was developed as more of a “concept”, with their show depicting what an actual broadcast day would be like for the small-town Mellonville station, whose programming included news broadcasts (of Mellonville stories), sitcoms, soap operas, movies, kid’s shows, talk shows, game shows, and commercials for other upcoming movies and shows — some of which we would never see beyond the commercial highlights.

Cast and Characters

SCTV cast

SCTV Season 1 cast, from the SCTVGuide.ca site

Most of SCTV’s ongoing characters were the the hosts and broadcasters of the station itself, who would recur and interact on a regular basis. Some characters would play duel personas, as newscaster Floyd Robertson would moonlight on the weekends as Count Floyd, the host of SCTV’s “Monster Chiller Horror Theatre”, where the movies were anything but scary. Both characters were played by writer/actor Joe Flaherty, who also played slimy talk-show host Sammy Maudlin; Guy Caballero, the cheap owner and president of SCTV; and Big Jim McBob, among dozens of other characters. Other early regulars included

  • John Candy (TV personality Johnny LaRue, 3-D horror auteur Doctor Tongue, Sammy Maudlin-sidekick William B. Williams, Mellonville Mayor Tommy Shanks, Yosh Shmenge, fishin’ musician Gil Fisher, and Harry, “the Guy With the Snake on His Face”)
  • Eugene Levy (dimwitted news reporter Earl Camembert, comic Bobby Bittman, 3-D horror auteur Woody Tobias Jr., Stan Shmenge, and inept teen dance show host Rockin’ Mel Slirrup)
  • Andrea Martin (leopard-print-wearing SCTV station manager Edith Prickley, repressed sexologist Dr. Cheryl Kinsey, insecure self-affirmation guru Libby Wolfson, Texan curio pitchwoman Edna Boil, and tone-deaf children’s entertainer Mrs. Falbo)
  • Catherine O’Hara (Las Vegas scorcher Lola Heatherton, buzzer-happy game show contestant Margaret Meehan, and raunchy nightclub comedian Dusty Towne)
  • and Dave Thomas (beer swilling Doug McKenzie, angry editorialist Bill Needle, motor-mouthed TV ad announcer Harvey K-Tel, Lowery organist/curio pitchman Tex Boil, and, memorably, “Bob Hope”).

All of the SCTV cast were also extremely proficient in performing impersonations (often multilayered) of real-life celebrities beyond their regular characters. This came in handy in the productions of parodies of actual films (Ben Hur, Gaslight, Chinatown) although the parody versions were the ones that “actually” aired on SCTV. Plus, all of the cast contributed to the writing of the episodes.

Harold Ramis was in the cast in the first season and wrote much of the second as the show’s first head writer, before leaving for a career as a film actor (Stripes, Ghostbusters), writer (Animal House) and director (Caddyshack, Groundhog Day). Ramis’ most memorable character for SCTV was corrupt Dialing for Dollars host/original SCTV station manager Maurice “Moe” Green.

In subsequent seasons, others were added to the cast, often to replace actors who had left. Rick Moranis (the only cast member who didn’t originally come from Second City) played back bacon fryer Bob McKenzie, video DJ Gerry Todd (before there were actual MTV VJs), baby brother Skip Bittman, and terminally ill rock star Clay Collins, as well as performing uncanny impersonations of Woody Allen, Dick Cavett, and David Brinkley. Martin Short came in at the tail end of SCTV, perfecting his (whatever he was) Ed Grimley character (who appeared on both SCTV and SNL, as well as his own Saturday morning cartoon show), smarmy albino Las Vegas headliner Jackie Rogers, Jr., aged songwriter Irving Cohen, and ill-prepared talk show host Brock Linehan. Season three SCTV performers Robin Duke and Tony Rosato also became SNL regulars.

Later SCTV cast

As you can tell from that rundown of characters, SCTV was quite the complicated show. I haven’t even mentioned that the show was presented in three different formats on four different networks, with cast members constantly rotating in and out, for a total of 135 episodes.

This Show Needs a Book!

If ever there was a show that needed a guidebook to its complicated and multilayered history, it was SCTV. And that’s where Second City Television: A History and Episode Guide comes in. Jeff Robbins has done a marvelous job of not only breaking down each episode into its component parts, but he has also carefully analyzed and critiqued each segment and performance. He keeps an eye out for “What to watch for”, while at the same time pointing out which segments were not quite up to snuff.

It’s also an excellent guide book for the Shout Factory DVD collections of SCTV, pointing out not only when segments have been repeated from previous seasons, but also the unfortunate (but few) changes that had to be made to get the shows on DVD. Music rights are behind most of the changes, exacerbated by the fact that the show’s producers never originally bothered to clear any of the music rights in the original episodes. This is especially true for the earliest seasons, when the show was working with minuscule budgets, most of which went to hair and make-up for the cast’s incredible impersonations. Robbins’s text hilariously points out the sometimes nonexistent sets from the first season. However, one gets the feeling that the cast is not too broken up over the earliest episodes not being available on DVD.

Thankfully, this is not a dry summary of the episodes. Robbins’ details of the shows evoke strong memories of the original performances and are frequently as funny as the originals. The detail is also incredibly welcome, especially for the earliest episodes and the last seldom-seen season on Cinemax. (At the time it aired, there were over 83 million TV households — and only two million subscribed to Cinemax.)

Second City Television: A History and Episode Guide is a must-have companion to this beloved late-night comedy series. Having it at hand while working through the Shout Factory compilations is near-essential. (Which is something I’m doing right now.) I loved the original SCTV and forced myself to stay awake in those pre-VCR days (or when VCRs were too expensive for kids like me). SNL was usually horrible, especially in those non-Lorne Michaels years immediately following the classic “first five” seasons, when SCTV was at its peak. I fear that this beloved show is becoming more and more a “lost” show, so I’m very happy to see books like this attempting to keep all those great memories (and laughs) alive.

As Count Floyd would say “Pretty scary, eh, kids!”

(The publisher provided a review copy.)

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